A Nobel Prize Laureate, Artturi Virtanen was recognized in 1945 for his inventions and research in agricultural and nutrition chemistry. He is known for AIV fodder, a method for preserving animal fodder, which is important during the long winter months.
Early Life and Educational Background
Artturi Ilmari Virtanen was born in Helsinki, Finland on the 15th of January in 1895. His mother was Serafiina Isotalo and his father was Kaarlo Virtanen. Artturi was schooled at the Classical Lyceum in Viipuri, Finland.
When Virtanen finished his basic education, he studied biology, physics, and chemistry at the University of Helsinki. He obtained his master’s degree in 1916. Virtanen then worked for a year as an assistant in the central Industrial laboratory in Helsinki before returning to university to study for his doctorate. In 1919, Virtanen obtained his Ph.D. in organic chemistry, with his research on the structure of abietic acid, a major component of pine rosin.
In 1920 Virtanen worked as a chemist in a laboratory at Finnish Cooperative Dairy Association. The laboratory quality controlled the manufacture of butter and cheese.
Virtanen’s work involved travelling to other laboratories to investigate new techniques, He also studied. He went to Zurich and studied physiochemical techniques and he studied bacteriology and enzymology in Stockholm.
In 1921, Virtanen became director of the dairy association laboratory, a position he was to hold for ten years. The laboratory would later merge with the University of Helsinki.
In 1924, Virtanen also became a chemistry instructor at University of Helsinki. His interest by now was in biochemistry.
Virtanen founded the Institute for Biochemistry in 1930 and a year later he became a professor of biochemistry at the University of Helsinki of Technology. In 1939, he became a biochemistry professor at the University of Helsinki.
In the storage of animal fodder, fermentation was a problem as it reduced the protein content of the fodder, making it less nutritious. Virtanen studied fermentation processes. Using different bacteria, he studied sugar fermentation from the initial reactants to the final products. He noticed that the first stages were very similar. This led to the idea that one solution to slow fermentation might be possible.
His research then focused on reducing the acidity of the fodder; it was known that acidity inhibited the fermentation process. Trials established that a pH of 4 or less was required to inhibit fermentation. Mineral acids were added to animal fodder / silage to lower the pH. Extensive trials of this acid treatment were carried out and the results showed that there were no harmful effects on the cows given fodder with a PH between 3 and 4.
Virtanen’s research work led to the successful invention of a method for preserving fodder which is now known as AIV Fodder, using his initials. This method was patented in 1932, and it improved the quality of stored green animal fodder—this was important during the long winter months in Finland. Animals fed AIV silage produced a higher quality of milk and were more resistant to disease.
Virtanen interest then shifted to legume crops used for fodder, with an aim to produce optimum vitamin yields. He studied nitrogen fixation in leguminous nodules and proved the importance of legoglobin, the red pigment abundant in active root nodules in leguminous plants, for nitrogen fixation. Tests showed that three harvests a year rather than one harvest provided the most nutritious legume crops.
In 1945, Virtanen received the Nobel Prize in chemistry “for his research and inventions in agricultural and nutrition chemistry”.
Virtanen also improved butter preservation methods. He discovered that the oxidation of lecithin, a naturally occurring compound in butter, resulted in the bad taste of stored butter. Adding salt to butter, the pH was increased above 6, and the oxidation stopped. This method of preserving butter was used in Finland for many decades.
He spent his latter years studying how to develop partially synthetic feed for cattle.
Personal Life and Latter Years
Virtanen married in 1920 to the botanist Lilja Moisio and they had two sons, Kaarlo and Olavi. Virtanen bought a farm near Helsinki and this was which he used for some of his research. He enjoyed the simple life and he never owned a car of his own despite his many achievements.
Virtanen remained in the Institute for Biochemistry which he founded until his death on November 11th, 1973. He died, aged 78, as a result of a hip fracture and the ensuing complications. As an honor to his legacy, the Virtanen lunar crater and asteroid 1449 Virtanen were both named after him.